Google’s self-driving car maneuvers through Washington, D.C.… (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty…)
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Even though its ubiquitous Internet search engine practically mints money, Google Inc. was widely seen as a company whose best days were behind it.
It was written off as the next Microsoft Corp. — a staid high-tech giant in the shadows of Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. that had lost its sense of urgency and innovative edge.
But that sentiment has shifted dramatically over the last year, and when Google swings open the doors to its annual conference for software developers Wednesday, it won't just be showcasing its latest products. It will be showing off the newest version of Google.
"A year ago, everyone thought Google was just going to collect its pension checks" from search advertising, said Steven Levy, author of the book "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives." "Now it's the hot company again."
One of the main reasons Google is the company that everyone is talking about: big ideas.
Google has long been known for making long-term bets on audacious ideas, some of which evolve into indispensable parts of our everyday lives: photographing every street on Earth to create a digital replica of the planet, say, or providing instant translations of websites in any language.
Under Larry Page, the Google co-founder who took the reins two years ago from longtime Chief Executive Eric Schmidt, Google is experimenting even more. Building artificial intelligence software to power driverless cars. Wiring homes with super-speedy broadband. Developing futuristic glasses that when spoken to or touched let users take photos and snippets of video or send email.
Google even has a small group of researchers coming up with a simulation of the human brain, part of its effort to bore so deeply into people's habits and lives that it can understand what they want — sometimes before they themselves know it.
"There's not much competition" when it comes to exploring technological frontiers, Page said during the company's first-quarter earnings call, "because no one else is crazy enough to try."
These attention-getting projects have reinvigorated Google's image in Silicon Valley and beyond. The company has a starring role in a new Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson movie coming out June 7, "The Internship," which showcases Google products and casts Google as "the greatest place to work in America."
And it has again become the darling of Wall Street. Analysts still fret that searches on desktop computers, Google's most lucrative way to sell ads, will cool off before it can come up with its next big moneymaker. But they say Page has impressed investors by running this $50-billion business of nearly 54,000 workers with hardheaded discipline.
Page has sharpened the company's focus on a handful of product areas to deliver, in his words, "one consistent, beautiful and simple Google experience," something Google executives say will be on display at its developers conference this week.
As rivals Apple and Facebook each experienced their own bruising falls, Google stock has shot up 65% since Page took charge. Google, whose shares closed at $877.53 on Monday, recently surpassed the market cap of Microsoft.
Prospects could get brighter if Page realizes his big ambitions for Google. Page wants Google to be on every screen and every device so online advertisers can reach consumers wherever they are and whatever they are doing.
Analysts aren't sure Page can pull off that feat. And not everyone sees Google through such rose-colored glasses. Google must crack the code on making money on mobile devices. It also faces growing pressure to show investors it can turn all this costly technological wizardry into moneymaking businesses.
"If you look at the revenue of core Google.com sites, we have had three quarters in a row of year-over-year growth below 20%," BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said. "If you go back and look at what the revenue used to be, it was a rocket ship. The rocket ship is slowing down."
Google faces major obstacles on other fronts, too. As the technology giant has grown ever bigger and more powerful, worming its way into every detail and facet of people's lives, it has drawn heavy scrutiny from government regulators and consumer watchdogs the world over.
Google emerged largely unscathed from an antitrust probe in the U.S. But its privacy practices are under attack in Europe, where it could face fines or restrictions on its operations. And Google's competitors are trying to undermine an agreement the company reached with European antitrust authorities, which could force major concessions or scuttle the deal.
Still, these days the criticism is more muted, and more investors are betting on Google than against it.